LONDON — At what point does the increasing level of instability in the Middle East begin to hurt the region’s airlines? Several countries in the region are currently completely or partly off-limits to carriers. Syria’s bitter civil war has long seen operators shunning Damascus and other regional cities, while pictures from Libya’s main international airport in Tripoli last year showed several airliners from Libyan Arab Airways and Afriqiyah damaged or destroyed by fighting between rival factions there.
Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, has been added to the list of destinations deemed too risky for many international airlines in the light of the rebellion against the government and the resulting air offensive by a Saudi Arabian-led coalition of Sunni Moslem nations against the Shia insurgents.
On top of that, several regional airports in northern Iraq are off-limits because of the combat between Islamic State fundamentalists, Kurds and Iraqi government forces. Carriers operating into Iraq were further spooked by an incident in late January when a Boeing 737-800 of low-cost carrier flydubai was damaged by several rifle-calibre bullets while on approach to Baghdad’s international airport. That led the United Arab Emirates’ civil aviation regulator to slap a ban on all UAE aircraft operating into the Iraqi capital.
The ‘Big Three’ Gulf carriers – Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways – are likely to be relatively lightly affected by these problems as the bulk of their operations are long-haul, but others in the region are having to adjust, says Saj Ahmad, lead analyst of UK consultancy Strategic Aero Research, who specializes in the region.
Many of the region’s carriers are quietly redeploying aircraft on to other routes, either to elsewhere in the immediate region or further afield, such as into Russia and the CIS nations, says Ahmad.
Just how much financial stress the closure of several destinations is causing is difficult to gauge, he says, given the somewhat opaque nature of many of the region’s airlines’ financial accounts: “A lot of Arab carriers aren’t very open about their numbers.”
Some destinations have seen passenger numbers on a rollercoaster in recent years. The Arab Spring movement that overthrew Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, followed by the unrest that culminated in the deposition of his successor, Moslem Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, led to plummeting tourism numbers in a country whose economy depends heavily on foreign visitors. However, Egyptair is pulling out of its problems, helped by the scale of its domestic market – hundreds of thousands of Egyptians travel back and forward to jobs in the Persian Gulf nations.
Some markets are more important to the region’s airlines than others: Yemen is marginal, but Iraq is much more substantial, for example.
The fluctuating security situation in the latter country has led to periodic stoppages of international flights “and I suspect that airlines are looking at the security situation in Baghdad airport on an almost daily basis, but Baghdad is just too big a market to ignore, if only because there is a lot of cash-ready customers prepared to travel in and out of the city.”
The continued unrest in countries like Syria, Northern and Western Iraq and now Yemen will simply make both dangerous and nonviable for many airlines, however. And for some airlines, time has run out, says Ahmad.
“Syrian Arab Airlines is dead – with absolutely no future prospect of any sort of political Syrian settlement, even for other Gulf carriers, flying to that country is permanently off-limits and, to a certain degree, this applies to Yemen as well.
“Yemenia’s outstanding Airbus A350 orders have zero chance of being delivered given the angst there, and while Iraqi Airways has the sustenance of its Government, it will struggle to be anything more than just another state entity that provides token jobs for those that can get them.”
The region’s political instability will become a major concern to the region’s airlines if Islamic State or other Syrian/Yemeni terrorists start to export their violence beyond their current borders. While this would not cause an immediate choking of traffic in the six Persian Gulf nations (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), it would necessitate further and delay-inducing security protocols that would inconvenience passengers.